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Is it possible to age gracefully? Insights from N.H. poet Donald Hall on the cusp of 90

  • Houghton Mifflin via Washington Post Houghton Mifflin via Washington Post



Washington Post
Saturday, June 23, 2018

‘In my lifetime as a writer I have cast off layer after layer of clothing in pursuit of nudity,” Donald Hall writes in his freewheeling essay collection Carnival of Losses. Hall, who will turn 90 in September, is not only stripping down to his unadorned essence, but also emptying his life savings of odds and ends.

His previous book, Essays After Eighty, created a stir with its frank, dryly humorous perspective on debility and death. This collection of more than 70 short ruminations on the indignities of old age, poets he has known and stray memories is looser and more anecdotal, and makes it clear that Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, has aged more gracefully mentally than physically. Hall comments, “In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue.”

He sets up Notes Nearing Ninety with a page of trenchant one-liners: “You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed,” he writes. “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”

Among his reminiscences, Hall exposes a few shameful memories. He regrets having called his 3-year-old son a bad boy for interrupting his work, and he is appalled that he confirmed a former Harvard roommate’s Communist Party affiliation during an FBI job background check in the height of McCarthyism. More risible gaffes: Repeatedly forgetting to open the garage door before backing out his car; constantly losing his dentures.

Hall wrote poetry until 2010, and mingled with many of the best. He recalls arguments with an immodest William Faulkner over freeing Ezra Pound, whose poetry he loved despite his “madness and his fascism.” He remembers James Dickey as “the best liar I ever knew,” and Allen Tate looking perpetually grumpy. Repeatedly, he wonders whose work will survive. About Richard Wilbur, who died at 96 in 2017, he writes, “In his work he ought to survive, but probably, like most of us, he won’t.”

Hall’s whole-animal approach to writing – leaving no parts unused or wasted – recalls the poem he turned into his most popular children’s book, Ox-Cart Man, in which nothing is wasted in a farmer’s repetitive cycle of manufacture and market. Much in this collection is familiar, including stories about his grandparents’ 1803 New Hampshire house at Eagle Pond Farm, owned by his family since 1865. This is where he retired from teaching in 1975 with his second wife, Jane Kenyon, and where they lived in blissful “double solitude,” devoted to each other and their poetry until her death from leukemia at age 47, in 1995. He is ecstatic to learn that his granddaughter Allison intends to move into the family homestead after he is gone.

Hall, who has spent decades exploring the poetry of death, is sanguine about mortality. In A Carnival of Losses, he considers life’s roller coaster between desolation and joy. He writes, “As a grandfather approaches his ninetieth birthday, he remembers his mother’s in 1993. Although he lacks great-grandchildren, he chugs on, he chugs on, he chugs on, understanding that eventually each locomotive reaches its roundhouse.”

May this engine that could keep on chugging – and writing.